Tunisian army chief retires amid criticism

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s military strongman, who has been criticized for the army’s inability to catch a band of al-Qaida linked militants, has announced his retirement.

Army Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar was widely seen as having a key role in forcing out dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 by not allowing troops to fire on the pro-democracy uprising.

Recently, however, Ammar has been criticized by opposition politicians for the army’s inability to find a band of extremists in a mountainous area near the Algerian border.

Ammar appeared on state television late Monday to say he had submitted his resignation to President Moncef Marzouki last Saturday. He says he wanted to retire in 2006 when he turned 60 but had been persuaded to stay.

Some viewed Ammar’s announcement as an effort to shift blame for allowing Islamic extremists to set up camp on a Tunisian mountainside.

He defended his handling of the extremists on Mount Chaambi in southwest Tunisia, on the border with Algeria, and blamed “failure in the chain of intelligence” for difficulties in tracking down the militants.

He said the militants have scattered since the army moved in earlier this year, but warned that they remain a threat.

“Tunisia is targeted by al-Qaida,” he said, adding that the militants had financing and weapons.

“Tunisia could see the same fate as Somalia” if the extremists are not rooted out, he said.

Tunisia is struggling in its transition to full-fledged democracy after decades under authoritarian leadership. The Islamist government has started taking a harder line against ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, some of whom have engaged in violence in an effort to promote greater piety in society.

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